Gran Canaria

James & Amelia Gould
Sun 30 Sep 2007 19:15

070909 – 070917 Gran Canaria


After a few days in Tenerife we sailed very early one morning to Gran Canaria to rendezvous with my sister and her boyfriend who were flying out for a visit.  We left at 3a.m. hoping to avoid the worst of the notorious Canary Island wind acceleration zones, where the North Easterly trade winds are funnelled between the islands and double in strength.  The passage to Gran Canaria from Tenerife is almost into the wind, and we didn’t fancy beating into anything too strong.  This time the wind didn’t read the weather forecast, and we had a wet and uncomfortable passage east pounding into a heavy sea.  We were pleased to make it into Las Palmas marina, and even happier to find a space after all the horror stories we’d heard about the marina being completely full.  (Las Palmas is the location of the start of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, which takes 250 boats across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.  The rally starts in the middle of November, but many boats arrive early taking up the spaces reserved for them in the marina).


The next day Eleanor and John arrived.  We decided to spend a day in Las Palmas and headed for the old part of town.  On the way to the historical centre we passed through Triana, a busy shopping district with pretty art-nouveau buildings.  One of the squares in the district was where in 1936 Franco announced the coup that started the Spanish Civil War – surprising, as the Canaries are such a long way from the Spanish mainland and an odd place to start a war.  We had a nice lunch at the Hotel Madrid, which is one of the oldest in the city.  The café’s walls were lined with old black and white pictures showing how pretty the city looked before it became the sprawling concrete jungle of today.


The oldest part of Las Palmas, Vagueta, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 and was completely different to the rest of the city.  Instead of the usual Spanish concrete blocks and wide avenues there was narrow cobbled streets lined with splendid colonial buildings.  The district is dominated by the Cathedral of Santa Ana, a huge architectural mish-mash that took over 500 years to build.  We meandered through the winding streets towards the Casa de Colon museum, another museum charting the progress of the discoveries of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.  The museum housed a collection of charts showing the various voyages of discovery Columbus made, artefacts brought back from the new world and, rather randomly, two parrots in the courtyard (and a replica of part of one of his ships, it even had ropes to pull on! J).  A plaque on the wall of a chapel opposite the museum claimed that the explorer stopped there to pray before leaving on his voyage of discovery.  It seemed that everywhere we have visited is trying to get a bit of the Columbus magic to attract the tourists…


Catedral de Santa Ana

Casa de Colon

Columbus woz ere


The following day we sailed from Las Palmas and had a great down wind sail to the southernmost part of the island.  The scenery along the way was pretty dull, with barren mountains rising up behind farmed plains or more concrete towns.  We knew we were approaching the wind acceleration zone at the south eastern side of the island when an enormous wind farm came into view, and the turbines ahead were turning rapidly despite the fact that we were still sailing in only 10 knots of wind.  We quickly furled the drifter (after clocking a little over 11 knots, oops… J) and were soon in the midst of a Force 5-6, still speeding along down wind under Genoa alone.


Gran Canaria Wind Farm


We anchored off a small village called Pasito Blanco, around the corner to the huge holiday resorts of Maspalomas and Playa del Ingles.  As we sailed past the beaches of the two resorts we could barely see any sand as the whole beach was covered in sun umbrellas and people.  The towns seemed to consist of an endless line of hotels, vying for position to have the most rooms with a sea view.  We launched the dinghy and went ashore to Pasito Blanco hoping to find a nice restaurant for dinner and a place that sold tickets to the nearby water-park (which was one of the main reasons for our sail south!).  What we actually found was a sleepy little private resort made up solely of holiday homes, with only a small Spar providing any catering.  We returned to the boat and decided to have a swim and a bar-be-que instead – this turned out to be much more fun than a meal ashore! (Amelia made the burger buns and I made fire! .J)


Baywatch Dudes

BBQ Rahula Style


The next day we had a mission – find out how to get to Aqualand, the water park.  This time we took the dinghy to the beach at Maspalomas and after chaining it to a lamppost we scoured the streets for tell-tale posters of people having fun on water slides.  We had no joy in Maspalomas as the streets seem to have only been built to link the various hotels and covered shopping malls together and not to house any shops selling anything one might need.  The few supermarkets we came across only sold alcohol and cigarettes (nothing wrong with that! J), the missing staples for resident holidaymakers who receive everything else in their all-inclusive hotels.  Peaking through the fences the hotels in Maspalomas looked quite posh, with extensive pool areas and cushioned sun loungers.  After having no luck in Maspalomas we decided to brave Playa del Ingles and walked along a promenade set into the sea cliffs separating the two resorts.  Here again we found only hotels and shopping centres, the whole town revolving around the tourist trade.


In the middle of all this commercialism lies an odd nature reserve, made up of pristine golden sand dunes and birds feeding in a lagoon.  The sand dunes look odd against the background of white hotel blocks and the rocky mountains of the island beyond.  The area is closed off to tourist apart from organised camel safaris and guided tours, though a walkway around the edge allows people to take a peak at this peaceful oasis set in the middle of a built up jungle.


Maspalomas Sand Dunes


We gave up on buying advance tickets to Aqualand and decided to take a taxi there and hoped we could buy tickets on the door.  We arrived at the gates to aqua heaven as they opened the following morning pleased to arrive before the buses from the resorts.  For the first couple of hours there were no queues and we had a great time splashing and sliding down all the attractions on offer.  Apart from the usual twisty-turney and straight down slides this park also had a slide called The Tornado, where you came down on a double ring into a whirlpool, then spun round and round the edge a few times before dropping down another slide into the pool below.  It was fast and great fun, the problem was James and I seemed to lose speed after a few turns of the whirlpool, and end up stuck at the bottom unable to reach the slide out.  It was only when the next pair came thundering into the whirlpool we realised we’d better get out quick, so we pushed along to the exit…  The only thing that marred a great day out was the constant attempt by Aqualand Inc to extract money from us.  Having paid the 23 Euro entrance fee we were then asked for a further 4 Euros to rent a tiny foot square locker (deliberately too small to share no doubt, necessitating us to rent several lockers between us).  Then if we wanted a sun bed it was a further 3.50 Euro each – there was nowhere else to sit as the whole site was a concrete floor with no grass areas.  There were no drinking fountains or potable water hoses, so we had to buy water at 2 Euros for a small bottle.  Beer was 6 Euros a pint, and we didn’t dare look at the price of the food (we took a packed lunch! Supplemented by chips that should have been hand cooked in virgin olive oil by a busty blonde in a bikini for the price we paid! J).  We also had the option of buying photos of us entering the site or sliding down the various slides at 7 Euros each.  It was extortionate, and a completely different attitude to the Aqualand site James and I visited on the Algarve, where most things were included in the entrance fee and drinking water was provided.  Still, it was a great day out at Aqualaaaand! (and we got some free bags.  Woo hoo.)


Having fun at Aqualaaand!

Even Ed the Duck balked at the price of a sun bed


Having visited the main attraction on the south side of the island we decided to head north again and try out one of the other anchorages on the way back to Las Palmas.  Another early morning start to avoid the worst of the wind and much use of the engine to drive us into what wind there was meant we were half way up the island by lunchtime.  We tried to anchor at Melenara but a long swell was still finding its way around the breakwater and a couple of dinghies had stolen the best spot in the small bay.  So we ploughed on to Las Palmas, arriving mid afternoon.  We arranged a hire car for the following day, then went out for dinner at a churrasceria – an all-you-can-eat BBQ meat Brazilian restaurant.  The boys were in heaven, ploughing through sausages, steaks and succulent roast meat (too much salad on offer though…J).


We spent a day exploring the northern half of the island by car, and were struck by how different the tranquil pretty interior was to the bustling towns on the coast.  Our first stop was the Barranco de Guayadeque, a beautiful valley full of cave dwellings constructed by the first inhabitants of the island, the Guanche (pre-Spanish colonisation).  A small informative museum at the foot of the valley provided background information on how the valley was formed and its inhabitants (including a cool working model of a watermill. J).  The cave villages are still inhabited today, though are off limits to tourists.  As we drove up the valley we could spot the odd door and window set into the rock face, marking a house set into a cave.  At the main village the houses were stacked one above the other in the rock, with steep staircases linking them.  An image of the fertility goddess was set into the rock, showing the still pagan beliefs of the Guanche, despite 500 years of Christian Spanish rule.  Interestingly, the modern age had managed to filter through to this old way of life.  Despite having no mains electricity several houses had solar panels and TV aerials butting from their roofs.


Guanche Cave House

Guanche Fertility Goddess


We then turned inland and headed for the central peaks of Gran Canaria.  Narrow winding roads led us up into the mountains and the population dwindled as twisted around the mountains.  We came across fewer cars and then suddenly (after weaving round a no entry sign… J) the road disappeared up ahead.  We stopped the car and got out to have a look – the road had been built on soft sand and rock and had collapsed!  We deliberated on whether it was passable and could take the weight of the car.  It was a long way back to the next road, so James decided to try it.  He drove carefully across the rubble of the old road then sped up the steep incline at the other side leaving a cloud of dust behind.  We then walked safely across.  A few kilometres later we came across another collapsed bit of the road and the process repeated…


Collapsed Road


Eventually we reached our destination – the walk up to Roque Nublo (Rock of Clouds), a Guanche holy place and the symbol of Gran Canaria.  The walk took us up to the peak at 1,803m through a pine forest and past beautiful views across the island.  At the top we could see Tenerife’s Mount Teide rising seemingly straight out of the clouds.  We passed the rock figure of El Fraile (The Monk), before arriving at a plateau dominated by Roque Nublo, a giant monolith perched on the edge of the mountain.  The sight of some climbers which had just reached the top of the rock sparked off a geeky debate between Eleanor and James about how they would climb the rock and which route looked easiest.  In the mean time John and I admired the view, happy to have climbed this far…


El Fraile (left) and Roque Nublo (right)

View across the valleys of Gran Canaria to Tenerife beyond


The next place on our lift of must sees in Gran Canaria (according to the guidebook) was the Cruz de Tejeda near the top of the island’s highest peak.  The location of the cross turned out to be a hive of commercial activity, with 2 restaurants and rows of stalls selling lots of tourist tat.  There was even a man selling donkey rides for children.  The stone cross was nothing special, so we quickly go back in the car before we felt compelled to buy something we really didn’t need (such as a stuffed camel embroidered with Gran Canaria.  It was hard to resist a souvenir of such a well known Canary Island beast).  We drove back down the other side of the mountain to the west coast, past huge tomato fields covered in plastic (tomato exports is the main industry in this part of the island), and depleted water reservoirs.  As we descended back to sea level, we watched the sun set over the Atlantic, painting the steep cliffs in oranges and reds.


Sun Set over the West Coast